Michael Harding: Seeing a beautiful man naked can be intense
Imagining young men without clothes is no problem, but the older men are, the harder it gets to fantasise them out of their suits
Michelangelo’s David. Photograph: Roberto Munoz/iStock
I was at the theatre recently to see a play, a monologue about grief and loss. It was really sad. But the most interesting thing about it was that the actor took off his clothes during the first few moments and remained naked for most of the story.
Seeing a beautiful young man naked on stage for over an hour can be an intense experience. One woman in front of me, who had been guzzling wine at the bar, dozed off before he stripped his clothes away, and when she woke up and saw him standing before her on the stage, she gave a little gasp of fright that the entire audience found funny. But the frivolity was short-lived. The naked man’s story of loneliness was totally absorbing. Look at me, his body seemed to say, I am human too.
And to be fair, he had a beautiful body, young and firm, and it was impossible to ignore his vulnerability and powerlessness as he stood exposed to the gaze of three hundred strangers.
Afterwards I noticed the actor on the street as he walked home. I stopped him to say how much I had been moved by his performance. I would have loved to spend more time with him, over a drink perhaps, but being naked on stage had made him iconic, and I was afraid I might reduce his presence to something mundane by asking him would he like to go for a pint.
So I went off to my lodgings, a small guesthouse on the outskirts of the city; a tiny room under a sloping roof in the attic where I would not have been able to swing a cat, if I had indeed brought a cat with me.
A violent reminder
I was still thinking of the naked actor the following morning as someone vacuum-cleaned the tiny corridor outside my bedroom, banging the end of the machine into the door so violently that it reminded me of my mother.
As a child I used to leave wet towels on the bathroom floor, and she would get annoyed, as if picking up towels was the essence of all the injustices she experienced as a woman. To vent her rage she would clatter the end of the vacuum cleaner into every door and against every skirting board on the corridor. I suppose she too was trying to say, “I am human too”.
I checked out of the guesthouse and found a restaurant serving breakfast. There was a man with streaky hair and a large pot belly talking to a waitress. And because I was still thinking of the naked actor, I tried to imagine the fat man without his clothes. Which wasn’t easy. Imagining young men without clothes is no problem. But the older they are, the harder it gets to fantasise them out of their suits.
“How is my queen?” he said to the waitress. She was from somewhere east of Warsaw.
“I’m okay,” she replied.
“You’re looking very well,” he assured her.
“Ah, thank you,” she said, as if she believed him.
Then he leaned forward towards her and spoke quietly.
“Your hair is lovely. Have you done something with it?”
“Those are extensions,” she explained, fingering her brown mane. And she went off to fetch his coffee. Clearly they knew each other.
But he was old enough to be her father. And by the look of his greasy, grey suit, I doubt if he spent a lot of time in the gym. The waitress returned.
“Are you driving to Dublin tomorrow?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “But I have a delivery for Athlone, if that’s any good.”
“That would be great,” she said, and she smiled before giving his table a wipe and vanishing again into the kitchen.
By now I was imagining both of them naked; her moving around the tables as nimble as a dancer, and him seated like a sumo wrestler with folds of belly flesh falling before him.
I suppose she could have got the train to Dublin, or the bus. But there was something human in him that she seemed to like; and something in both of them that I liked.
The naked actor on the stage had affected me. I don’t think it was the power of the play. If he had been fully dressed I fear the play might not have worked so well. But in his vulnerability, standing on stage without any clothes, and no hiding place from the devouring gaze of the audience, he had allowed me to undress the world and see them all for a moment as truly human.